As we enter 2024, the conflict in Sudan is shaping up to be one of the worst crises in the world. Nearly 7 million people have been displaced, hunger is widespread and a hallmark of this civil war has been ethnic cleansing that may have crossed the threshold to genocide. Despite being a calamitous catastrophe, Sudan has not received much media attention, nor sustained high level engagement by policy makers, particularly in the West.
To begin 2024, I am bringing you my conversation with Kholood Khair, the founder and managing director of Confluence Advisory, a think and do tank formerly based in Khartoum. We kick off discussing her analysis of why conflict broke out in April between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. We then discuss how this conflict evolved to the point where the Rapid Support Forces appear to very much have the upper hand and why international diplomacy has thus far failed to end this civil war.
You can find the full episode of the Global Dispatches podcast on your favorite podcast listening app, here.
Excerpt edited for clarity
Why Have Efforts at a Ceasefire and Peace Agreement in Sudan Failed So Far?
Mark Leon Goldberg So given that this conflict isinternationalized, why have international efforts led by, say, the United States, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and other actors been thus far unable to mediate any meaningful peace agreement or at least cessation of hostilities?
Kholood Khair The simple answer is that they are too fragmented in approach and too divergent in intended outcome to be able to rally together or work in tandem. Ordinarily speaking, you would have sort of one mediation platform. Now we have three. We have Cairo’s “Neighboring Countries Initiative.” We have the “US-Saudi Joint Jeddah Platform,” and you have the IGAD-AU political talks.And there is no reason why these three mediation platforms should not work together. You know, with Cairo looking at humanitarian assistance and access, Jeddah, looking at Ceasefire, and IGAD-AU looking at political agreement or a political settlement. But because Egypt has vastly different interests in political outcomes in Sudan than, for example, the A.U. and IGAD, who themselves as member states entities are also made up of countries that have very different interests to each other. You won’t necessarily get the complementarity that you need. And in the terms of Jeddah, the joint Saudi U.S. initiative, that has continuously failed to bring about a ceasefire. And that’s because the logics of Jeddah are predicated on an assumption that you can, through only two international actors of all the different international actors I’ve mentioned before, bring about a ceasefire, ignoring really the main international and regional backers of both sides — that is Egypt in the UAE. And I think it’s become very clear to everyone now that the current setup in Jeddah just cannot bring about the kind of ceasefire that is required.
Mark Leon Goldberg Given your kind of outside position, your expertise, what could help prod the parties to a cease fire at this point?
Kholood Khair I think to win any war, you need two things blood and treasure. And it’s very obvious that in order to curtail the extent to which these generals can prosecute this war and fund proxies to do it for them, you would need to curb their ability to access their funds. And though there have been some sanctions that have come into place, if the RSF has money in the UAE and SAF has money in Turkey, NATO member and Malaysia. Those sanctions won’t work unless you get Turkey, Malaysia and the UAE to play ball. And so far, the United States, which has imposed the highest number of sanctions of any country, has not done the work with some of these countries Turkey, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, to get them to comply with U.S. sanctions. And so those sanctions have mostly been symbolic. I think what would be required would be for the United States in particular, because though it has forfeited so much of its international power to regional actors, in particular Gulf actors, it still is a crucial global leader in Sudan and in the region. And if the United States were to take Sudan much more seriously, i.e. by appointing a presidential envoy who could speak to, for example, these princes in the Gulf or these presidents on the African continent, and be able to corral them at least to work together to some degree, then I think that would go a long way. Frankly speaking, we haven’t seen the level of diplomacy that is required for a context such as Sudan right now and frankly, not the level of diplomacy we saw successive U.S. governments expend on Sudan previously thinking here, particularly during the CPA period of 2005.
Mark Leon Goldberg That’s the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that you’re referring to.
Kholood Khair That entire period and, you know, throughout the sort of referendum that saw the secession of South Sudan. So that entire period, the U.S. was very invested. It had an office of Sudan and South Sudan that was well-staffed and it had subject matter experts and geographic contextual experts, and it was able to really plug into what was going on in the White House as well as, of course, the State Department on The Hill. We are lacking that right now in terms of what is happening on the U.S. side of things.
Mark Leon Goldberg It’s neglected.
Kholood Khair It is neglected mostly by the White House in the State Department. I don’t think it would be fair to say the Sudan has been neglected by The Hill, because what we see very clearly and quite consistently from the Hill is bicameral, bipartisan support for the right kind of political outcomes in Sudan. And we have seen that consistently since the fall of Bashir. We haven’t seen that reflected in the State Department. So, for example, when the coup happened in 2021, the Hill was very much asking state to call the coup a coup and thereby behave in a specific way with the generals who had taken over power. Whereas what we saw from the State Department was a lot of mollycoddling and a lot of appeasement tactics with these generals. And that level of impunity, I believe and many others do, to directly led to the generals believing that they could prosecute this war really without anyone batting an eyelid. And the unfortunate reality is they were right.